Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Mike Henry
My friend and respected consultant Mike Henry opines in his most recent blog commentary [link] that “…the growth of Low Power FM (LPFM) stations…should serve as yet another wake-up call for local NPR News radio stations.”

Henry cites a New York Times article from last Friday (10/14) that spotlighted the growth of Low Power FM (LPFM) stations [link]. Henry’s conclusion is:

The Times’ hypothesis is that, along with being the sole outlet for ethnic and community groups, LPFM stations are quickly finding ground and a path as a true hyper-local news outlet in the vacuum being created by NPR News stations that do not cover the local ground.

While there is merit in Henry’s op-ed, he is missing the big picture.  LPFM stations and NPR News stations exist in two different worlds.


Henry focuses on a quote by Michael Lasar, co-founder of Radio Survivor [link] from the NYT article:

“There’s still a need for local news and information, which many public radio stations have abandoned,” he said. “There’s a lot of stations that just go on automatic pilot and play NPR and satellite downloads. That’s Low Power FM’s ace in the hole.”

Lasar is smart fellow who literally wrote the book about the history of Pacifica Radio but his work primarily covers NFCB-ish community radio, not NPR News Stations. I believe that Lasar and Henry’s notion that, as a group, NPR News stations are simply repeaters of nationally syndicated NPR content that have abandoned local news, is not true.

Yes, there are NPR News stations that do little more than repeat network programming but there are lots of stations that are doing much, much more. In fact, increased local and regional content by NPR News stations is one of public radio’s brightest new developments: Consider:

• Station-based talk and interview programs are increasing in number and quality. We’ve reported about On Second Thought, at WRAS, Atlanta [link]; Boston Public Radio at WGBH [link]; Essential Pittsburgh at WESA [link]; and Where We Live at Connecticut Public Radio [link]. These programs typically out-perform NPR News magazines and are sources of considerable pledging and underwriting revenue.

• CPB-sponsored Regional Journalism Centers (RJC) are creating new regional and local content. We have previously reported on RJCs such as the Fronteras Desk (based at KJZZ, Phoenix) covering border issues from San Antonio to San Diego [link]; the Texas Station Collaborative based at KERA and KUT [link]; and the New England News Collaborative based at WNPR [link].

• Many NPR News stations cover hyper-local news on their websites, via social media and podcasts.

• NPR ONE allows listeners to build there own menu of news whenever, wherever they chose including plenty of local news.

Mike Henry ends his op-ed with this thought:

“If LPFM stations can now eat your lunch, then your lunch deserves to be eaten. I relish the opportunity to help any broadcaster, mighty NPR News stations or nimble LPFM stations, serve their local audiences the way they deserve.”

Holy hyperbole Mike!

Yes, there are some LPFM stations doing a terrific job covering local communities and interest groups, but they aren’t the norm. The average NPR has an annual budget of around $2.5 million and I have seldom seen a LPFM station with an annual budget of more than $50,000.  NPR News stations and LPFM stations operate of two very different levels.


Podtrac [link] just released their September list of the top ten podcasts, ranked by the number of estimated Unique Monthly Audience. Seven of the ten are sponsored by noncommercial or nonprofit orgranizations. http://analytics.podtrac.com/

American Public Media is new on the top ten, likely powered by podcasts from Marketplace. This American Life had the biggest month-to-month decline perhaps because Serial is out of season. Below is our custom chart comparing Podtrac data from August and September.

1 comment:

  1. Lasar is a professor at UC Santa Cruz. I'm not surprised he thinks NPR stations have "abandoned" local news for just airing satellite programming. Look at the hot mess that is KUSP! And KAZU, while a good station, did not (AFAIK) have a strong reputation for local programming.

    That said, Lasar's on crack. Stations, and markets, like that are the minority. Most of the time there are one or more three key factors that are going to make it very, very hard for an LPFM to "eat NPR's lunch". Co-exist, perhaps, but not eat the lunch:

    1. The local NPR outlet will do a good job serving their local community with local news and content.

    2. The population density is too low for an LPFM to effectively serve the area, so no matter how good the programming is...they won't get enough audience to generate the necessary revenue to support it.

    3. If the market is small enough but there's just enough population density to make an LPFM theoretically viable? There's probably a small AM or FM commercial station filling that niche by being highly active in the local community.

    That last one's important. Many in the industry, myself included, often bemoan how "big corporate radio" has ruined radio...but there are quite a lot of small town broadcast operators out there who love their towns and hustle to prove it. And it's surprising how many are still on small Class C (1kW) AM stations or Class A (6kW) FM stations and are making a decent living off it.